Two Americans talk across the political divide

The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago

I can think of few things worse than spending weeks immersed in the news media favoured by someone whose political views I abhor. But that is exactly what a group of “red” (conservative) and “blue” (liberal) voters from my home state of Illinois did for most of May.

They agreed to “walk a mile in my news” with a voter from the other side of the chasm that is US politics. Braver Angels, the grassroots group that brought them together, wants to break Americans out of their “media silos”.

That means not just reading articles from across the political divide, but getting to know someone for whom those articles are gospel truth. The aim is to build human bridges to help heal a country where partisans increasingly think rival voters are not just wrong, but stupid and evil, too.

“I want to be able to hear why others think the way they do — rather than just say ‘oh, they’re idiots!’” says retired, 70-something, Catholic school-educated Mary Lou. “That’s very different from when I was growing up, when you didn’t even know what your neighbours’ views were. Now people choose neighbourhoods based on their political views.” 

Mary Lou was paired with a woman half her age. And based solely on their ages — not to mention unconscious bias — I was sure I knew which one was which. Mary Lou would be red and her partner, a personable 30-something Chicago school teacher who prefers to remain anonymous, would be blue.

But I could not have been more wrong, perhaps proving that I need media re-education even more than those who actually signed up for it.

Mary Lou, the liberal, had planned to break out of her news silo — which includes PBS, the American public broadcaster — by listening to the same story reported by both PBS and Fox News, the leading conservative broadcaster. “But I couldn’t even find Fox News on my TV,” she exclaimed in exasperation, demonstrating how hard it can be to escape our media ghettos, even for the rare few who are minded to try.

Mary Lou’s red partner says she wanted to connect with a blue on an “intuitive” level. “I identify as a red, my parents are both reds, my first thoughts are all still red,” she told me in an interview. “But I want the tribalistic thinking to stop”. 

The women tackled an incendiary news story from earlier this month, which has fuelled vitriol in rival outlets: the racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, which many US Democrats have blamed on conservative media.

The two even waded into the topic of the “great replacement theory”, an idea endorsed by the suspected Buffalo shooter, which holds that the Democratic party is trying to gain political power by encouraging the immigration of more like-minded voters to outweigh white conservative votes.

Ironically, Mary Lou found herself explaining the theory to her red counterpart, rather than the other way round. “We were able to talk about it because Mary Lou didn’t condemn. If I had felt condemned I’m sure my blood would have got up, because that’s just what happens, but she was just explaining what she had read,” the school teacher told me afterwards. She plans to listen to more PBS in future, because Mary Lou does. “Maybe we will have tea one day.”

But even those who can’t have tea with a political enemy can still walk a mile in their news with the help of the websites Tangle Media, The Flip Side, and AllSides, which curate rival viewpoints on topics each day.

Isaac Saul, 31, Tangle founder, says “we are all living in curated news bubbles, we are fed the type of news that we already want to see. We are hoping to puncture the bubble. This isn’t about kumbaya, there’s no appetite for that, but there’s an appetite for ‘there must be something that I’m missing’”.

Or, in the words of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his seminal 2008 Ted talk: “you can’t just go charging in, saying, ‘you’re wrong, and I’m right’ because everybody thinks they are right”.

Hats off to Braver Angels for encouraging Americans to try what Haidt terms “moral humility” instead — or what used to be called, in less fractious times, an open mind.

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